In the first leg of her quest to finish the world's longest triathlon, Norma Bastidas, a 46-year-old physical trainer in Vancouver, British Columbia, swam 10 hours a day off the Yucatán Peninsula in the Gulf of Mexico. The salt water made her lips and tongue swollen, tiny jellyfish that sneaked inside her wetsuit left painful welts, and gasoline in the rough waters made her vomit as she swam. "I felt sorry for the fish," she says. When her GPS malfunctioned at mile 27, forcing her to start over, she showed no sign of being upset, only telling her crew, "Let's get it figured out and keep going." Two months later, Bastidas finished the 3,789-mile triathlon, from Cancún to Washington, D.C., more than doubling the previous record, set in 1998.
She did it to draw attention to the issue of human trafficking, which for her is more than just another endurance athlete's pet cause. When Bastidas was 17 years old, she was abducted by two men at a bus stop in Mexico City. They threw her into a car and drove to an upscale house, where she was locked away to be sold into slavery. She managed to escape, but never reported the incident: "My family was afraid of retaliation," she says. Since then, Bastidas has worked to stop human trafficking and child exploitation, which remain on the rise. (According to some estimates, there are about 800,000 victims of human trafficking in Mexico each year.)
Bastidas began running in 2006 to cope with the stress of a divorce and her oldest son's being diagnosed with a debilitating eye condition. Soon she was participating in marathons; two years ago, she began running to call attention to human trafficking, covering 2,600 miles from Vancouver to Mexico. During parts of her triathlon this spring, Bastidas and her crew slept only a few hours at a time. "As hard as we had it," she maintains, "we always had the opportunity to say 'I've had enough,' a luxury so many around the world don't have."
From Cancún, Bastidas biked across the Yucatán and then inland toward Mexico City before heading north to Juárez, where she crossed the border into Texas. Highway drivers in the U.S. weren't always thrilled to wind up behind her crew's trailing RV. "There were people putting their hands out of the windows of their cars," she says. "But it wasn't always to wave hello."
In Georgia, she began running up to 40 miles a day. In the last miles into D.C., she ran through the night and nearly fell asleep on her feet. As she approached the finish line at the National Mall, she was joined by a dozen survivors of trafficking, who ran alongside her. "When I saw them at the finish line and they hugged me and thanked me, it nurtured the inner child in me, the one that lived in shame for so many years for something I never did," she says. "My crime was only being born a girl."